Roanoke Electric Empowers Black Landowners through Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention

As the nation continues to reckon with racial and social injustice, a North Carolina electric cooperative’s sustainable forestry program has been quietly working to reverse decades of systemic discrimination against African American landowners.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project is one of eight community-based organizations selected in 2013 to administer the national Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities created the program after decades of declines in African American farm ownership.

Fourtee Acres Farms’ Tyrone Williams (r) has been a longtime participant in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s sustainable forestry project. At left is REC’s Alton Perry. (Photo Courtesy: North Carolina Forestry Deptartment)

In 1920, Blacks owned between 16 million and 19 million acres of rural land and accounted for about 14% of the nation’s farmers. Today, they comprise less than 2% of farmers and own less than 5 million acres, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

“In addition to discriminatory practices by agencies, African American landowners were denied access to resources because they weren’t informed of technical resources available to them or informational opportunities to learn the importance of estate planning to reduce the risk of heir property [land owned by two or more people in which there’s no will],” said Alton Perry, project manager at the Ahoskie-based co-op.

Perry and his staff help participants establish legal ownership of their properties to ensure that valuable land stays in their families. Landowners also learn forestry management techniques to transform unprofitable family farms and forests into economic assets.

Fourtee Acres Farms owners Tyrone and Edna Williams plan to pass Fourtee Acre Farms on to future generations. At right is Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s Alton Perry. (Photo Courtesy: North Carolina Forestry Department)

Perry, who forged strong connections with public agencies and conservation advocacy groups during an early career in forestry, hosts informational webinars, conferences and workshops, attended by about 200 nearby landowners. He’s helped dozens gain access to agencies and other resources for forest management and estate plans. Perry estimates that, through this program, local landowners are implementing sustainable forestry and conservation practices on about 13,000 acres of land.

“Alton deserves a ton of credit for taking something from scratch and turning it into one of the best forest landowner programs in our area,” said Chris Brown, community relations manager at Enviva, a wood pellet manufacturer that operates nine plants in the Southeast, including two in Roanoke Electric’s service area. “He has a great ability to bring people together, from the industry to conservation folks to landowners.”

Enviva is one of two industry partners supporting the Roanoke Electric program with grants and technical assistance for landowners. Since 2017, it has given $50,000 in financial assistance for forestry and legal services and provided on-staff foresters to consult with participants at workshops or on their properties.

As for the landowners seeking assistance from the project, many have turned into skilled foresters; one was appointed to an advisory panel at a national conservation group. Others, like the Kyler family, are just beginning.

“It has been a positive experience working with REC,” the family said. “We’re now going through the process of finding out how much we own, what’s tillable, what’s farmable and what’s open. REC is really educating us on forestry and conservation. It’s one thing to own property, but something totally different to own property and cultivate it for the next generation.”

This Spotlight Story is an excerpt from an article by writer Victoria A. Rocha with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.